REVIEW: Kingdom Hearts Union Cross Hosts First Dandelion Meeting

Square-Enix loves its fans, and they’re not afraid to express it. Every official Square-Enix event I’ve been to has been well-organized, exciting, and fun, and Sunday’s Dandelion Meeting exemplified that in spades.

Months ago, the Kingdom Hearts Union Cross (KHUX) official Twitter account announced a fan meeting in Anaheim for KHUX players, called Dandelions after a group of characters in the game, and tickets sold out within the day. On Sunday, that event was in full swing, and Square-Enix did not hold back, bringing in much of the KHUX dev team, holding multiple panels, and setting up photo opportunities and games all around the Anaheim House of Blues.

Below you’ll find a recap of the full day, for those only interested in the announcements,

scroll down to see a TL;DR section at the end just for you.

Everyone else, sit back and enjoy the ride!

The Introduction

The party started with Shinji Hashimoto, the executive producer for Kingdom Hearts, coming onstage to greet the assembled Dandelions with an enthusiastic, “My friends are my power!” He received a full-throated scream of approval in response and set the tone for the rest of the day.

Series director Tetsuya Nomura then appeared onstage to raucous applause. He announced that the day’s event would be focusing on KHUX, so there would be no Kingdom Hearts 3 announcements. Less than a minute later, he proceeded to cue a Kingdom Hearts 3 trailer, because Nomura is Nomura and Kingdom Hearts fans are always willing to see KH3 material. This trailer, and the subsequent video, announced the presence of 20 LCD-style games in Kingdom Hearts 3 and that they would be available to play at the Dandelion Meeting, including one available to play on a giant screen.

The Designer Panel

The designer panel followed soon thereafter, providing fans with an in-depth look on how the numerous artistic assets of KHUX are created. Art director Tatsuya Kando spoke first about medal designs, using KHUX’s newest super-rare and super-powerful Sephiroth medal as an example and jokingly asking the audience, “Everyone has this one, right?” His design process begins with a medal request for a certain character and involves pulling assets for that character, making mockups, receiving feedback (often in the form of “make it cooler”), and cleaning up the approved final design.

Main designer Mayume Okamoto and character and avatar designer Miki Yamashita spoke next about the process of creating player avatars and designing NPCs. Okamoto works on converting more complex character models into simplified, smaller, cute characters that will still function well when animation is applied. She handles the basic designs of characters, while Yamashita designs the details. Yamashita was in charge of designing well-loved NPC Strelitzia, whose design is based on the flower whose name she shares (colloquially known as the bird of paradise flower). She drafted over a dozen different designs using similar styles and color motifs and submitted them for review. Feedback took the form of piecemeal assembly (i.e. “use the hairstyle from design A, the dress from F, and the shoes from L”); she described assembling Strelitzia’s final design as “like putting together pieces of a puzzle.” She also designs outfits for player avatars, and she walked us through narrowing down the designs for certain events, using the recent New Year’s event as an example.

Sara Shimokobe has the single best title/job description on the panel: Heartless designer. She walked the audience through her design process, displaying multiple designs for what would eventually be the Adventurer Heartless and informing us that she likes to design Heartless that are “cute but still interesting” in keeping with the game’s aesthetic. Once she has a design approved, she figures out which elements would be animated and creates a specification document to show the animators which parts move and how. She finished her segment by previewing several Heartless based on Final Fantasy summons that we can expect in game somewhere in the near future, asking the audience if they could guess what summons they were based on. The one that most of the audience got right, based on Shiva, looks like a cross between Marie Antoinette and an ice cream cone, and I for one cannot wait to see it in game.

Daigo Tsukada, Keyblade and Heartless designer for both KHUX and KH3, definitely had a few fun things to say about his team. He explained that they try to make Heartless movements more comical and illustrated, once again in keeping with the KHUX’s aesthetic, and that an artist’s personality often shines through in the movements of the Heartless they animate. He added with a smile that particularly difficult or annoying Heartless may have been from designers who are “steeped in darkness.” While he couldn’t show the audience any of the Keyblades he’d designed for KH3, he did feature some of his designs for KHUX keyblades, including the idea behind tiered/”evolving” keyblades and the “carousel” – the place where players place medals – for each keyblade. The carousels started out similar to the stained glass/dive to the heart designs that are a well-established tenet of Kingdom Hearts; Nomura’s suggestion that Tsukada incorporate elements of a carousel gave the element its name and inspired a more electric/light-themed design, so Keyblade carousels look less like intricate stained glass windows and more like their namesake.

Background designer Aki Igarashi and cutscene lead Megumi Yamamoto rounded out the panel. Igarashi spoke on the design process for backgrounds for the maps that appear in KHUX: the example she showed was for an as-yet unreleased map of Maleficent’s Castle. She references the movie in question heavily while designing her backgrounds, in this case referencing multiple interior images of the castle from different angles and vantage points. Multiple shots of the map and a basic 3D model of the layout are then created, taking into account the movement of the game’s camera over the map and places where the player may be moving between or behind map elements (overhangs, pillars, etc) and essentially creating a 3D space in a 2D environment. She then consults with the level designer and background lead to refine the map. Yamamoto also references the source film for cutscene design and selects relevant areas on the map for the scene. Creating a scene involves thinking about character movement, the different steps the scene will entail, and camera movements; the scene is diagrammed by camera movements over the map and character actions within those movements. Character animation is heavily based on the source material; for example, Prince Phillip’s movements were studied in Sleeping Beauty and replicated to the best of the designers’ and animators’ ability in KHUX. Finally, we got to watch all the elements come together in the premiere of a new cutscene: Prince Phillip escapes from Maleficent’s castle, but Maleficent traps the player character in the castle to face off against her horde of goons.

All told, the design panel was a fascinating inside look at aspects of KHUX that are essential to the game but don’t often get as much attention as gameplay or plot. I’ll definitely be playing KHUX with a greater appreciation of everything that goes into making it as beautiful as it is.

The Activities

The Dandelion Meeting offered seven distinct activities that Dandelions could engage in throughout the day. Along with those activities came a stamp card with a promise: complete at least 5 of the 7 activities and turn it in for a prize!

Four of the activities were photo ops. From the rear, they looked like story books; from the front, Dandelions could step into Agrabah, Wonderland, the Beast’s Castle, and the Seven Dwarves’ Mine to take pictures with the characters therein. Sadly, none of my photos from the front turned out (accursed phone camera!) but the back detail was beautiful.

The fifth activity, the Draw Challenge, took place on the upper balcony. Dandelions would pair up, sit down, log into KHUX, and take turns drawing randomized medals, with those who pulled the rarest/most powerful medals declared to be the winners. I wasn’t able to play the Draw Challenge, as I prioritized other activities, but those waiting in line and watching the challenge were yelling and cheering like they were at a sporting event. It’s rare that games are as much fun for onlookers as they are for participants, but evidently the Draw Challenge achieved that in spades.

The sixth activity was the one I prioritized: a chance to play the new Kingdom Hearts themed LCD games. The line took about half an hour but was well worth it, as we were seated in front of a row of tablets with instructions on how to play the game in question and the incentive that high score winners would get a special prize. My game involved preparing carnival food, sending Mickey back and forth across the screen to deliver hot dogs, french fries, and sodas to his hungry friends. The instructions were simple, but timing everything right was challenging – it was strongly reminiscent of the LCD games I grew up with in the 90s, which means the game designers did their job incredibly well. I had no hope of getting a high score, given that I’d misread the instructions and accidentally kept resetting the game between rounds, but I still had a fantastic time and can’t wait for the games to become available to play.

The final activity was known as the Dandelion Message Wall. A large black standalone wall bearing the KHUX logo at the top stood near one of the venue walls, and Dandelions were given gold and silver sharpies and encouraged to write messages. Several were jokes about the franchise (“Sora for Smash” and “Donald heals great; you guys are just mean” stood out); some were heartfelt messages; and some were simply signatures. Personally, I got a little sappy with mine.

Once I’d completed my five activities, I turned in my card to receive my prize: stickers of the worlds featured in KHUX!

There was, of course, also a merchandise store, where all flavors of Kingdom Hearts merchandise could be purchased, from figurines to plushies to keychains of Keyblades, with an on-site-only discount. Quite a few people were holding merchandise bags by the end of the day – a good number of Dandelions walked away happy with that one figurine or keychain they needed to complete their collection.

The Giveaway

At the start of the day, Square-Enix announced a partnership with Walt Disney World’s Toy Story Land, set to open in June: to that end, every attendee had been entered in a giveaway, with the grand prize being a trip to Toy Story Land for its grand opening in June. The penultimate event of the day was the giveaway itself, followed by an unexpected but exciting announcement: KHUX will be collaborating with Toy Story Land! The collaboration is for the English language version only and will coincide with Toy Story Land’s opening in June.

The winner of the giveaway was Ashley, who joined several beloved Toy Story characters on stage for a victory photo.

The Developer Panel

The final and most highly anticipated event of the night was the developer panel, consisting of KHUX producer Hironori Okiyama, KHUX art director Tatsuya Kando, and Nomura himself.

The first thing they did was expound on the LCD games announced earlier in the day, officially giving them a title: CLASSIC KINGDOM. 20 individual LCD games will be available to play in KH3, though they won’t all be available right at the beginning of the game; rather, they’ll be scattered throughout the game and will need to be discovered by the player before they can be played, in much the same way that pages of the Hundred Acre Wood were scattered in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. The CLASSIC KINGDOM minigames were inspired by classic Mickey shorts; each one is “like its own little world.”

They then explained the reason that a KH3 feature was revealed at a KHUX event: some CLASSIC KINGDOM minigames will be available to play in KHUX! Which games and the date at which they’ll become available were not announced, but they will be available sometime before the release of KH3. Additionally, they’re hoping to marry CLASSIC KINGDOM gameplay in KHUX with KH3, so that playing the minigames in KHUX will provide an advantage when KH3 rolls around. It sounds like this particular feature is still pie in the sky – they’d like to make it happen, but it’s not yet confirmed and no further details are available.

They then announced a feature that many a Dandelion has been hoping for for a long time: a PVP mode! The PVP mode will have 1v1 gameplay, though battles will be asynchronous – essentially, players will be fighting another player’s stored data instead of fighting another player in real time. The mode will have a 3 Keyblade setup, where each user will pick their 3 strongest Keyblades and go into battle with their opponent. Rounds will be best 2 of 3, and both players will have infinite HP; the victor of each round will be the one who deals the most damage to their opponent. Players are given a selection of 3 opponents when the enter PVP mode: one stronger than them, one weaker, and one at about the same level. Defeating a stronger opponent will win you more points and a higher ranking, but being defeated will lose you points, so choosing your opponent is as much a part of PVP strategy as Keyblade and medal choice.

The audience was then treated to a demo of PVP mode: it takes place in Olympus Coliseum, the music of choice is Rowdy Rumble, and the opponent enters like they’re in Tron, all bright lights and data cubes. It was flat-out exciting to watch; the audience’s enthusiasm just about rattled the walls, and the followup question was on everyone’s minds: when will PVP be released?

Soonish, was what the answer boiled down to. “May,” said Okiyama, with long, purposeful pauses between his words, “may…” The month pun was also the answer: they’re aiming for a May release date, but they’ll release it when they’re certain it’s ready, so no guarantees on that date.

The next announcement incurred just as much excitement: KHUX will soon have 7 star medals. The current highest level for a medal is 6 stars; with this release, all medals will be able to be evolved to a 7 star level, adding extra strength to already powerful medals. The Dandelions received a preview of the 7 star medal borders, which are ornate and incorporate wings into the design, with the comment that they’re “a lot fancier now.” Specific synthesis/evolution materials will be required to evolve a medal to 7 stars; said materials will be available in different worlds, as well as rewards in the PVP mode. So when can we expect 7 star medals?

“May………may………be.” The plan is to release the 7 star medal update concurrently with the PVP update; once again, they’re hoping for May, but it’ll be released when it’s good and ready.

The final announcement blew everyone’s minds, and the noise level at its revelation just about blew the roof off the House of Blues: players now have a chance to get their name featured in Kingdom Hearts 3! The Make Your Mark event began on Sunday at 8 PM PST in KHUX, and while details weren’t released at the panel (given that the panel was a scant two hours before the event itself dropped), they’re available in the KHUX info screen. Essentially, players will be able to complete tasks to be entered in a drawing, and 300 players will be chosen to have their name included in KH3. The panel assured the assembled Dandelions that the appearance wouldn’t be a special thanks section or anything of the like; the names would be appearing in game, though revealing how they’ll be incorporated in the narrative would be a spoiler for KH3; it’ll remain a surprise until KH3 is released.

I haven’t heard screaming that loud since the last time I attended San Diego Comic Con. Kingdom Hearts fans are nothing if not passionate, and it’s an incredible and heartwarming thing to witness.

The panel ended with a Q&A session that was half hilarious non-answers and half unexpected lore drops. When a Dandelion asked how putting medals in a Keyblade carousel worked in-world, the panelist exchanged blank stares and started suggesting ideas rapid-fire – maybe they carry the medals with them? Maybe the Keyblades open up at the end and they can put medals in there? In the end, they concluded that KHUX was a magical world and that it all worked by magic; it was the first time I’ve ever seen a series director use the “A wizard did it” excuse in earnest, and it was hilarious. The jokes continued as another Dandelion asked if there were any collaborations they wanted to do, at which point Okiyama reminded the audience of the upcoming Toy Story World collaboration, and then the entire panel jokingly decided they needed to collaborate with Twitter and make a medal of the blue bird logo. (They then hastened to clarify that that was indeed a joke and not at all canon, because Kingdom Hearts fans are both passionate and desperate for updates, and they do have to be careful.)

The lore came about as answers to two other questions. They’re planning on adding a world in KHUX that has never before been seen in the Kingdom Hearts franchise; while they can’t reveal what it is, they did say that a character from said world will appear in KH3 as an as-yet unannounced summon. Additionally, they revealed that the new Union leaders in KHUX (Skuld, Ven, etc.) have stories that will entwine with the main Kingdom Hearts story; while their fates have already been plotted out, revealing what they are would be spoilers. Even their names, including the spelling of their names, are significant to that story. That should give Kingdom Hearts fans something fun to puzzle over and theorize about until a new trailer is released.

The End of the Day

The day ended with the announcement of the CLASSIC KINGDOM high score winners, a thank you to the assembled Dandelions, and all of the panelists who’d appeared throughout the day coming back onstage to take a bow. The MVP of the day, in my opinion, was the translator – she was there for every panel and every announcement and was keeping up perfectly with everything, even on the occasions when the developer’s panel turned into quick crosstalk and jokes. (She’s on the far left in the photo, and she is an incredible human being.)

As the assembled Dandelions filed out of the House of Blues, laughing and chatting and exchanging social media information to keep up with new friendships forged throughout the day, we turned in our admittance wristbands for a final prize: a KHUX tote bag, designed by Nomura himself and full of goodies, including postcards of KHUX worlds, a Dandelion Meeting lanyard, and Union badges. Passion and enthusiasm on all sides, from fans to event organizers to game designers, is what makes Kingdom Hearts events so magical – and that is the right word: magical – and the Dandelion Meeting was no exception. There were jokes about it being the first annual meeting; I sincerely hope that’s the case and that we’ll be able to do it all again next year.

The TL;DR for those who want the nitty-gritty or a refresher:

  • Kingdom Hearts 3 will feature 20 LCD minigames, collectively known as CLASSIC KINGDOM

    • These games will be found throughout the worlds of Kingdom Hearts 3; they won’t all be available to play at the get-go

    • Some CLASSIC KINGDOM games will be available to play in Union Cross

    • Hopefully, playing CLASSIC KINGDOM in Union Cross will give players an advantage when it comes to CLASSIC KINGDOM in Kingdom Hearts 3 (this feature is unconfirmed but hopeful)

  • New features coming to Union Cross include a PvP mode and the ability to evolve all medals to 7 stars

  • PVP Details:

    • 1v1 gameplay

    • Asynchronous battles – It won’t be a live battle; you’ll be challenging someone’s stored data

    • 3 keyblade setup, with a match being best of 3

    • Infinite HP – winner is determined by who does the most damage in each round

  • 7 Star Medal Details

    • The 7 star medal frames are already designed

    • All medals will be able to be evolved to 7 stars

    • Specific synthesis/evolution materials will be required to evolve medals to 7 stars; some of these materials will be available in PvP mode

  • PvP and 7 star medals will be released concurrently; there’s no set release date, but May is a probability

  • Make Your Mark event available now in Union Cross

    • Players compete in certain tasks in order to enter a drawing

    • 300 winners will be chosen to have their names appear in Kingdom Hearts 3

    • The event runs from April 15th to April 30th; the deadline to enter is on the 30th

— Katie Cullen

Follow Katie on Twitter here!